The relationship between France and Australia could have remained a dead calm after the tensions from the end of last year around the submarines. But the Albanese tour in Europe is more than a courtesy visit, it is a fresh start because both political leaders have no other choice.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese met President Emmanuel Macron in France last week after attending a NATO summit in Spain. Resetting a solid bilateral relationship, hugely damaged after the cancellation of the submarine contract is obviously a key objective for the newly elected Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
When Australia had struck a deal with the United States and UK to provide submarines powered by US nuclear technology through the new AUKUS alliance at the end of 2021, France has had one of the most powerful reactions a country can take on the international scene: the continental country temporarily withdrew its ambassadors from the US and Australia. A few months later, former French France’s former foreign affairs minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said he was pleased that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison lost the Federal election. But despite these harsh times, Albanese now needs to renew the relationship with Macron for two main reasons.
First, Albanese knows that if he wants Australia plays its full role in the concert of nations, and especially with Europe, he will need to rebuild the relationship with France. If Macron’s track record on the domestic scene can be challenged, his first mandate has been more successful on the international scene, at a time when the UK has left the EU and Germany had transitioned from the Merkel-era. Macron played a key role in the EU’s support for Ukraine, and his re-election means Australia can count on French involvement in NATO too.
Secondly, it is important that that reset occurs because if France is central to power in Europe, it is also a key player in the Pacific where Australia has to face strategic issues, above all in the Indo-Pacific region. Recently, the China-Solomon Islands pact has become an element of concern for Australia as well as the future of New Caledonia, a territory neither France nor Australia would like to fall under Chinese influence.
On the French side, President Macron is in an unstable situation after the latest legislative elections: he failed to get the majority and the French vote fragmented. Even if he asks Elisabeth Borne to remain Prime Minister he could still face contestations among the opposition that could lead to a motion of censure of the new government and ultimately a Parliamentary instability that could prevent him from passing any important laws during his mandate.
Challenged domestically, Macron needs allies on the international scene. France’s presidency of the EU ended on June 30 (every EU country has a rotative presidency for six months) and Macron needs to play some cards outside the EU box. Hence the outstretched hand from Albo comes at the right time for Macron, above all in the context of shared interests he could have with the Australian new leader. Since his first election in 2017, Macron has taken a keen interest in the Pacific by putting a massive effort into proposing the construction of an “Indo-Pacific axis” to his Australian and Indian partners with the intent of curbing China’s influence. And the French presence in the South Pacific region is a way to contain China’s expansionary projects.
If Albanese’s visit to France is a “reset of diplomatic relations after the Morrison government cancelled a submarine deal last year,” as the Australian Prime Minister said, it is also an opportunity to explore future joint business initiatives in the context of the ongoing free trade talks between the EU and Australia, that will ultimately give easier access to Australia to a market of almost 450 millions of people.
The submarines are behind us but future diplomatic and business opportunities are ahead for both Australia and France.
Natanael Bloch is French and is a Group Account Director at Thrive pr communications in Melbourne, and a former French Government advisor.Tim Harcourt is Australian and is Industry Professor and Chief Economist at IPPG, University of Technology Sydney. Both are members of the European Union Australia Leadership Forum.
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